Baltimore—In 1999, the Walters Art Museum and a team of researchers began a project to read the erased texts of The Archimedes Palimpsest—the oldest surviving copy of works by the greatest mathematical genius of antiquity. Over 12 years, many techniques were employed by over 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging and classical studies. The exhibition Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes will tell the story of The Archimedes Palimpsest’s journey and the discovery of new scientific, philosophical and political texts from the ancient world. This medieval manuscript demonstrates that Archimedes discovered the mathematics of infinity, mathematical physics and combinatorics—a branch of mathematics used in modern computing. This exhibition will be on view at the Walters from Oct. 16, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012.
Archimedes lived in the Greek city of Syracuse in the third century B.C. He was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer and astronomer. In 10th-century Constantinople (present day Istanbul), an anonymous scribe copied the Archimedes treatise in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled, together with the parchment of other books, to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process is called palimpsesting; the result of the process is a palimpsest.
On Oct. 28, 1998, The Archimedes Palimpsest was purchased at Christie’s by an anonymous collector for two million dollars. It is considered by many to be the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction because it contains Archimedes’ erased texts.
“The collector deposited the Palimpsest at the Walters for conservation, imaging, study and exhibition in 1999, but many thought that nothing more could be recovered from this book. It was in horrible condition, having suffered a thousand years of weather, travel and abuse,” said Archimedes Project Director and Walters Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books Will Noel. “Detailed detective work and the serendipitous discovery of important documents and photographs allowed us to reconstruct what happened to the Palimpsest in the 20th century, when it was subject to appalling treatment and overpainted with forgeries. A team of devoted scholars using the latest imaging technology was able to reveal and decipher the original text.”
Before imaging could begin, the manuscript had to be stabilized. Conserving the manuscript took 12 years, including four years just to take the book apart due to the fragile nature of parchment damaged by mold and a spine covered in modern synthetic glue.
“I documented everything and saved all of the tiny pieces from the book, including paint chips, parchment fragments and thread, and put them into sleeves so we knew what pages they came from,” said Abigail Quandt, Walters senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books. “I stabilized the flaking ink on the parchment using a gelatin solution, made innumerable repairs with Japanese paper and reattached separated folios.”
In 2000, a team began recovering the erased texts. They used imaging techniques that rely on the processing of different wavelengths of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light in a technique called multispectral imaging. By employing different processing techniques, including Principal Components Analysis, text was exposed that had not been seen in a thousand years.
By 2004, about 80% of the manuscript had been imaged. The most difficult pages left were covered with a layer of grime or 20th-century painted forgeries. These leaves were brought to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), one of the most advanced light laboratories in the world, where a tiny but powerful x-ray beam scanned the leaves. The x-rays detected and recorded where beams bounced off iron atoms, and since the ink of the Palimpsest’s under text is written with iron, the writing on the page could be mapped. This enabled scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text.
This exhibition has been generously supported by an anonymous donor and by leadership gifts from the Selz Foundation and the Stockman Family Foundation.
Discoveries in The Archimedes Palimpsest
Archimedes, in his treatise The Method of Mechanical Theorems, works with the concept of absolute infinity, and this Palimpsest contains the only surviving copy of this important treatise. He claims that two different sets of lines are equal in multitude, even though it is clearly understood that they are infinite. This approach is remarkably similar to 16th- and 17th-century works leading to the invention of the calculus.
Also found only in the Palimpsest is Archimedes’ Stomachion. It is the earliest existing western treatise concerning combinatorics. It is thought that Archimedes was trying to discover how many ways you could recombine 14 fixed pieces and still make a perfect square. The answer is high and counterintuitive at 17,152 combinations. Combinatorics is critical in modern computing.
In addition to Archimedes’ works, six other erased books of history and philosophy were discovered. Twenty pages of the Palimpsest were created from the erased texts of ten pages from a manuscript containing speeches by Hyperides, an Athenian orator from the golden age of Greek democracy. Twenty-eight pages were from the erased text of 14 pages containing a Commentary on the Categories of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle’s Categories is a fundamental text to western philosophy. This commentary survives nowhere else.
When the Palimpsest was imaged at SSRL, the name of the scribe that erased Archimedes’ writings was discovered on the first page of the Palimpsest. His name was Johannes Myronas, and he finished transcribing the prayers on April 14, 1229, in Jerusalem.
Future Conservation Research
The exhibition Lost and Found: The Secret of Archimedes will demonstrate what we have discovered at the Walters. The last two galleries in the exhibition will look at what the museum hopes to discover in the future and how scientific discovery can enhance our understanding and appreciation of artworks. The interactive learning stations in these galleries will include five pieces from the museum’s collection and will demonstrate how the staff at the Walters collaborates to learn about art and on how to best maintain and preserve this art for posterity. Conservation, interpretation and authenticity will be explored as well as new scientific techniques being used at the Walters.
The Archimedes Codex presents the story of the lost manuscript as part archaeological detective story, part science and part history. The 313-page book, specially priced at $13.50, is co-authored by Walters Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books Will Noel and Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Stanford University Reviel Netz.
To coincide with the exhibition’s opening, two volumes, each priced at $125, of a projected scholarly five-part series documenting the findings of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project will be published for the Walters by Cambridge University Press. The first volume surveys the Palimpsest’s history and the projects’ scientific findings. The second volume provides transcriptions of the hitherto unknown texts contained in the Palimpsest, accompanied by facsimiles of the processed images from which these transcriptions were constructed.
The Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum is located in downtown Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre streets and is one of only a few museums worldwide to present a comprehensive history of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. Collection highlights include Egyptian mummies, Renaissance suits of armor, Fabergé eggs, Art Nouveau jewelry and old master paintings. Among its thousands of treasures, the Walters holds the finest collection of ivories, jewelry, enamels and bronzes in America and a spectacular reserve of illuminated manuscripts and rare books. The Walters’ Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian and western medieval art collections are among the best in the nation, as are the museum’s holdings of Renaissance and Asian art. Every major trend in French painting during the 19th century is represented by one or more works in the Walters’ collection.
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